Planning on tackling the BT700 (Ontario’s 700 kilometer Buttertart-oriented loop) or another bike-packing challenge this summer? It sounds minor right now, but a saddle sore or discomfort in your… well, in your nether regions can really mess up an otherwise fantastic experience or a time goal that you’ve set for yourself. But there are a few things you can do before you head out on the ride to mitigate your odds of experiencing saddle discomfort. Don’t try to solve the problem at kilometer 440—there are simple steps you can take before you depart that will make your ride a lot more comfortable, and a lot more fun.
This is my weird area of expertise, ever since I started asking women and men what keeps them from enjoying their rides. There were so many questions about comfort in the saddle area—from preventing numbness and chafing to dealing with recurring saddle sores—that I ended up writing a book on it: “Saddle, Sore: Ride Comfortable, Ride Happy.” You can check that out for more information, but below are a few of my favorite tips to get you started on your quest to ride as happy as possible!
Your level of experience doesn’t matter. I know riders, from beginners to pros, who have questions about their bodies that they aren’t comfortable asking bike shop employees, coaches, or even their gynecologists. We’ve been conditioned to avoid talking about our “nether regions,” and that lack of communication is hurting the cyclist population. There are new riders who are still deciding whether or not to commit to our awesome sport and don’t know about bike-specific shorts, and veteran riders who are about to quit because they can’t get rid of saddle sores—and that’s making riding a whole lot less fun.
Cycling shouldn’t be uncomfortable. You shouldn’t be getting saddle sores every ride. Your nether regions shouldn’t feel numb. Cramping shouldn’t be making you cry on the bike. And you shouldn’t be wearing your underwear with your bike shorts.
10 years ago I was the one on the ride who got pointed at, until a friend finally took me aside and explained that underwear wasn’t necessary with bike shorts. The complaint is all too familiar: we aren’t told these basic things, yet people assume we have this knowledge that somehow has been passed on, possibly through osmosis. It makes me wonder how many women quit cycling because it’s uncomfortable—not because it really is uncomfortable, but because they’re missing some basic information.
When I first started riding a bike, I had no idea what a chamois was. I had no idea you shouldn’t wear underwear with it—to be honest, I rode in running shorts for the first two years of my cycling career. When a teammate gave me my first set of shorts along with my jersey, I was absolutely perplexed by the pad in them. And when I got a saddle sore, I freaked out a teensy bit. But what I didn’t do was talk to anyone about it.
Let’s stop pretending that riding a bike is easy on our “stuff.” It isn’t. But we can make it better! Even in bike shops with female employees, it feels weird to spill your personal business to everyone. But if you were at a gynecologist’s office, you would tell your doctor what was up, right? At a nutritionist’s office, you would tell him or her what exactly you’ve been eating, right? There’s no reason to feel strange—your main contact point with the bike is, in fact, your pelvic region, and so talking about it in a bike shop shouldn’t be a taboo.
Invest in finding the right saddle
On a bike, you have three contact points: Hands, feet and nether regions. So, let’s make sure your pelvic area is happy. A saddle that fits your pelvic structure will alleviate pressure and keep you safe from numbness and chafing, and your sit bone width is actually pretty simple to measure. Most bike shops have a way to measure the space between your sit bones to help you find the right size saddle for you, but you may have to experiment with a few before you find one that feels just right.
And invest in a good pair of shorts
When it comes to shorts, one good pair is better than three crappy pairs, any day of the week (though make sure you wash it after every ride!). Brad Sheehan, co-founder and lead designer at Velocio, says, “People don’t realize that if you find stuff that fits well, that can make cycling a much more comfortable experience.” I could not agree more. Get something that fits well, where the chamois is comfortable and not diaper-like, something that will allow you to go out and do some serious miles. If you’re not sure what to look for in a chamois, Bontrager’s Senior Product Manager Jason Fryda has a few factors you should look at as you’re chamois-shopping. You may not see this info on the labels, but compare the different chamois in a few shops.
- Longevity: Higher quality foams just last longer. They are designed to compress and rebound more so they will have the same ride after a few years of regular riding. If you’re planning on buying one pair and using them for a long time, you want a pair of shorts with the highest quality foam you can find.
- Duration/Comfort: You want a chamois that can hold up to a long ride, but that doesn’t mean a diaper-style puffy pad. Higher quality foams can support, cushion and do so for a few hours without packing down.
- Flexibility/Breath-ability: If you ride for a longer time, moisture can start to really wreak havoc on your saddle comfort and that is where flexibility ensures the chamois stays moving with you, rather than against you, which causes friction. And the higher quality foams will have open cell structures that are more breathable.
The one everyone jokes about, but seriously, it’s a problem. Repeat after me: You do not wear underwear with bike shorts. This, and I can’t emphasize this enough, is bad for you. The chamois is there to pad your seat a bit, but also to keep the bad bacteria away from your genitals. All underwear does is trap the bad stuff in there. You might already know this, but if you’re out for a ride and notice that a fellow cyclist is still rocking bikini briefs under her bibs, consider helping her out and letting her know that life will be a lot comfier if she ditches the underwear.
Do laundry right
Speaking of chamois… Wash your chamois, carefully. This seems kind of obvious, but just make sure that when you’re washing your kit, the inside of the chamois is actually getting clean. Sometimes, it doesn’t get as squeaky clean during a wash cycle as you might prefer, especially in a big load of clothes. The second part to this is making sure that your shorts are getting rinsed enough. I’ve had a lot of people complain about getting rashes from their chamois, and nine times out of ten when I tell them to rinse their shorts an extra time in the wash, that solves the problem. Leftover detergent plus sweaty, exposed skin leads to irritation.
Use chamois cream when needed
Chamois cream fights the friction between your skin and your shorts. Not everyone needs it, and not every ride requires it, but it’s helpful, and not something to be afraid of. There are even female-specific ones out there, designed to help balance your pH. If you’re going to be out on the bike for a while, definitely apply a bit before you head out the door. At first, it takes some getting used to and feels kind of slippery, but trust me, you’ll learn to love it. Use roughly a quarter-sized amount: You don’t need a lot for it to work effectively.
Be honest with your coach
I don’t just mean about if you skipped a workout or if you’re having a busy week at the office. I mean, let him or her know when your period is, if cramping is an issue, if you have a bad saddle sore, if you’re trying to get pregnant—anything health-related is also going to impact your cycling. Guess what? Your coach will get it. Maybe the week you have your period is a good week to plan as the rest week in the month. Or maybe, if you’re having severe cramping, your coach will suggest you go to a gynecologist and discuss your options. A coach wants what’s best for you, and if you’re not being totally honest, it’s impossible for him to do his job. It may feel awkward at first, and you can even mention that it’s a hard topic for you to bring up. But if both of you can be on the same page, you’ll get the most bang for your coaching buck.
Drop your shorts
I devote a whole chapter to this point in my book because it matters so much when it comes to your in-ride hygiene and ability to avoid saddle sores. If you take nothing else from this book, take away the fact that when you finish a ride, your shorts come off immediately.
Treat early, avoid issues later
A saddle sore is easier to cure when it’s first starting (and it’s even better if you can prevent it altogether). Catching one early and taking appropriate steps to get rid of it can keep you healthy and even avoid needing surgery! A day off the bike beats a season on the couch.